DENVER — Politics watchers, or at least John Oliver viewers, know that most of the law-passing that matters in this country happens at the state level — in state capitol buildings coast to coast.
Colorado’s General Assembly kicks off its 70th session today in classic Colorado style — so bipartisan it’s hard to say who’s walking onto the court with the upper hand. Heading one bench we’ve got Senate President Bill Cadman. The Colorado Springs prankster with “a lot under the hood” presides over a Republican majority (of one) in the upper chamber that has come for the first time in a decade.
In the House, Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst of Boulder becomes the first Democratic woman to head the lower chamber, though by a similarly narrow margin of just three seats.
These two captains, who more or less decide if legislation sees the light of day, are billed respectively as staunchly conservative and staunchly liberal, but also as team players, as pragmatists. Presiding over it all, or at least holding the veto pen, is recently re-elected Gov. John “Everyman” Hickenlooper. Insiders are hailing this session as the likely return of the people’s favorite non-politician.
What’s on deck this session? Will lawmakers find a way to prop up the state’s broken down bridges and fill the monster pot holes on US 36? Will they mandate new Maureen Dowd-proof packaging for pot-laced gummie bears? The Colorado Independent will deliver the play-by-play every day from under the dome, but here’s a preview of coming attractions:
What the frack is up with fracking?
Remember when there were going to be fracking bans and complimentary anti-fracking penalties on the ballot? Remember when everyone was mad at Congressman Jared Polis and Congressman Jared Polis was equally mad about the fracking of his American Dream home? Remember when that all disappeared under the shiny blue-ribbon promise of Hickenlooper’s fracking commission?
What was once the problem of countless community members, the entire Colorado Democratic Party and the multi-billion dollar drilling industry was reduced, at least for the breadth of the midterm elections, to the problem of the 19 lucky folks on the governor’s task force. This is, theoretically, the hour when that problem returns mightily, or at least measurably, to the people. Will the commission have viable recommendations for the state legislature? If it doesn’t, will lawmakers cobble together a compromise? Or are do-or-die fracking measures headed to the ballots once more?
Speaker Hullinghorst is the woman you’re looking for if you’re looking for the optimist in this situation.
“I’m hoping they [the commission] will come up with some good suggestions,” she told reporters the day before the session began, “ideas that will address the most important issues residents have, which is the interface between a lot of population on the Northern Front Range and industrial activities that are oil and gas. The idea is to try to preserve everybody’s property rights, to preserve community rights and to make sure that when we do get this resource out of the ground — which is very important — that we do it in a way that protects our air, our water and our open spaces … Local control is a very important element in that.”
Regulate the police?
As our country’s history of racism reached a flashpoint with the militarization of police forces from Ferguson to New York, The Colorado Independent broke an astonishing string of excessive forces cases in Denver jails and covered the city’s historic $6 million civil settlement over the excessive force murder of street preacher Marvin Booker.
Lynn Bartels of The Denver Post has already predicted that race relations and policing will be one of the gnarliest issues of the 2015 legislative session. A bill to remove District Attorneys from police prosecutions because they rely on law enforcement for many of their cases is expected to be introduced by criminal justice educator and advocate Rep. Joe Salazar (D-Thornton). Mandating the use of police body cameras, an idea which has been floated nationally, is also rumored to be on the table.
House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran (D-Denver), who’s quickly installing herself as the leading Latina politician in the state, was cagey regarding the specifics of these proposed policing regulations ahead of the legislative session.
“I don’t have specifics at this time,” she said, “but it’s all about building trust with the community.”
Will our roads become a) less bumpy b) less congested?
If pothole dodging on Colorado’s “rustic” roads wasn’t harbinger enough, CDOT’s estimated $10 billion shortfall should be a pretty good sign that transportation is on the minds of those at the state house. This issue is complicated in a whole mess of ways, from plummeting gas-tax revenue to the specter of Taxpayer Bill of Rights refunds. The leg passed a bill in 2009 (SB 228) which, as the economy improves, should dump a couple hundred million from state coffers CDOT’s way. But those funds could be subject to taxpayer refunds under the TABOR amendment.
House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso (R-Loveland), who has the transit bug, is busy with a bill that — while not flouting the will of TABOR — would at least promise CDOT another year of funding if the coveted cash goes to taxpayer refunds this round. He also hopes the new balance of power in the leg will be a boon for transit funding.
“I hope more transportation funding is bipartisan,” he said. “We ran legislation last year to put general fund money into transportation, obviously that didn’t pass. But we’re hoping with the extra resources we have this year that we’re able to do that this year.”
DelGrosso also pointed out that CDOT is hard at work solving their money problems on their own terms — namely with a pilot program testing the efficiency of a 1.5 cent pay-per-mile usage fee that would replace the gas tax.
“The way I understand the law is that if they wanted to make that [pay-per-mile] happen it would still have to go to a vote of the people, because it’s a tax,” said DelGrosso. “But the premise of the pilot program is to see what the benefits are, if there are benefits, and then they can go ahead and make the case to the people of Colorado.”
So will college/ life become affordable again or what?
Probably more like “or what,” though it does look like legislators are working on some answers. Hullinghorst said her caucus is looking toward a bill that would require better, more legible disclosure measures for students taking on debt for higher education. She also made a surprising (for a “Boulder Liberal”) appeal to reducing regulation for small business owners.
“In terms of small businesses, we’ll be continuing to look at what we can do to help with the small business property tax … We’ll also look at reducing the burdens on small businesses through regulatory reform.” Then she quipped, “I’m a very strong Democrat, but that doesn’t mean I don’t support small business.”
Duran said she’s crossing aisles, and chambers, to discuss alternative education models and workforce training.
“The challenge before us is that as our economy has become globalized there is a real need to continue to give training to individuals who, well some of their jobs may be overseas at this point, quite frankly. The more we can retrain the workforce, the better off we’ll all be. There’re also issues with this traditional model of four years of education… it’s not a one size fits all solution. I think there are a lot of other pathways for kids graduating from high school to get good paying jobs. Ultimately that should be the focus,” said Duran. “I’ve had a couple of meetings with Senate President Cadman about workforce development and I’m very optimistic.”
Meanwhile, although it would take a constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage statewide, Rep. Dominick Moreno (D-Commerce City) is floating a bill that would put hikes in the minimum wage under the category of local control, letting municipalities and counties decide for themselves.
Weed, guns, abortion, oh my!?
We don’t like to speculate on topics lawmakers themselves haven’t speculated much on, but if history repeats itself, there will be bills introduced to further regulate or to deregulate the legal weed industry, make it more difficult to get an abortion and make it easier to buy guns. We already know, for example, that the cannabis crew is agitating for a little deregulation of the edibles market and for better workers’ rights in what is still a federally unregulated industry (read: no OSHA standards).